Of Women and Salt

In Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia all in the voices are of women and the stories all center around women. The faculty book club at the Rivers School in Weston, Massachusetts choose the book for their March selection.

It is an intergenerational novel, centered around Jeannette, a young woman struggling with addiction, and her mother, grandmother, and five generations of female ancestors dating back to the 19th century and a mother and daughter in another family whose lives intersect with the first family’s in 21st-century Miami. Before my copy of book arrived in the mail, I listen to the audio book read by actor Frankie Corzo. It sound like poetry and sucked me into the story.

Photo by Robin Sallie

The book includes the Miami perspective of Cuban immigrants as well as that of Cubans who didn’t have an interest in immigrating to the U.S. The opening chapters take place in a Cuban cigar workshop during the in the 1860s, shows an interplay between literature, the class consciousness and political movements in Cuba at that time.

The narrative builds through different voices, tenses, and tones. The 12 intertwined stories transport us through time and place, providing glimpses into different moments not only in family histories but in women’s individual life-stories. The first three stories tie the women together: starting in Cuba just before the start of its war of independence against Spain when Carmen’s grandmother, María Isabel, receives Cirilo Villaverde’s sacred novel of race and class conflict in Cuba, then moves to Miami, where Carmen’s daughter, Jeanette, witnesses an ICE raid and takes in the little girl, Ana who was left behind, then jumps to the detention center where Ana’s mother, Gloria, is sent.

Motherhood = “a constant calculation of what-if. What if we just gave up?” All the characters’ relationships to their own motherhood is often complicated. One questions whether she wanted to be a mother and resents the sacrifices she’s forced to make. Early in the book, Jeanette thinks of Gloria: “Even the best mothers in the world can’t always save their daughters.” There is no monolithic motherhood.

immigrant mothers = all sacrificing, all suffering, and encompassing only motherhood.

Domestic violence, situational violence, strategic silences and racism defines most of the women.

All men in the novel are one-dimensional place holders.

“Jeanette, tell me that you want to live.” – Carman.

Two feet in two different places, to stand with a border between your legs

Maybe is I had a way of seeing all the past, all the paths, maybe I’d have some answer as to why: Why did our lives turn out this way? – Carman

The before and the after like salt whipping into water until I can’t tell difference, but I can taste it on your skin when I hold your fevered body every time I detox. – Carman

Cecilia Valdés is both a novel by the Cuban writer Cirilo Villaverde (1812–1894) published in Havana in 1839, and a zarzuela based on the novel. It is a work of importance for its quality, and its revelation of the interaction of classes and races in Havana, Cuba. Synopsis: The story takes place in colonial Cuba around 1830. The young and beautiful light skinned mulatta, Cecilia Valdés, is the illegitimate daughter of powerful land magnate and slave trader, Cándido de Gamboa. Leonardo de Gamboa is his legitimate son. Leonardo falls in love with Cecilia, not realizing that she is his own half-sister, and they become lovers. At the same time, a poor black musician, José Dolores Pimienta, is also hopelessly in love with Cecilia. Cecilia rejects Pimenta’s advances and conceives Leonardo’s son. However, love between Leonardo and Cecilia does not last. He abandons her and becomes betrothed to a white upper class woman, Isabel Ilincheta. Cecilia turns to the faithful Pimienta to plan revenge. On the day of his wedding, Leonardo is assassinated on the steps of the cathedral by Pimienta who acts on the instigation of Cecilia. Pimienta is executed, and she is thrown in prison.
Cecilia Valdés reveals the intricate problems of race relations in Cuba. There are the elite social circles of Spanish-born and creole whites; the growing number of mulattos, of which Cecilia is one, and the blacks: some slaves, some freed men. The blacks are also divided between those who were born in Africa and those who were born in Cuba, those who worked on the sugar plantation and those who worked in the households of the wealthy in Havana. Cecilia Valdés is a canvas displaying the sexual, social, and racial interaction of the Cubans of the day.

The not-so-whispered dictate of enslavers: mix to mejorar la raza

Finding her daughter a husband had become an aggressive devotion.

Plantations run on slave labor – sugar. Formally black free blacks are forced into slavery.

“…there are many different immigrant experiences and they’re very much tied to race and class and the economic dynamics of migration. My mother immigrated from Cuba, and until very recently Cubans were given preferential treatment in the U.S. There was the Wet-foot, Dry-foot policy—so as long as you touched ground in the U.S. coming from Cuba, you were on a path to citizenship—and there were economic resources available. During those first waves of migration, Cubans were also coming from wealthy backgrounds in Cuba, escaping communism and loss of property, and often were white immigrants into Miami, into an established ethnic enclave.

That was different from my father’s immigration path from Mexico, which never had those kinds of privileges. Growing up, everything in terms of how they were sort of treated and the resources available to them because of where they were coming from and their pushes to migrate, made me very aware that Latinidad is not a monolith, that the immigrant experience is varied based on a lot of different factors.”

Gabriela Garcia
  • Bohío – hut, shack
  • Suboxone ~ used to treat narcotic dependence.
  • Zarzuela – a Spanish lyric-dramatic genre that alternates between spoken and sung scenes, the latter incorporating operatic and popular songs, as well as dance.
  • Hamaca – hammock, rocking chair, swing
  • Cazuela – pan, casserole (dish); stew, casserole
  • Frutabomba – A torpedo, oval, or pear shaped fruit. The fruit bears on a large leafed tree up to 10m tall.
  • Tabaqueria – tobacconist’s (shop), cigar store; cigar factory, tobacco factory
  • Creole – the second most spoken language in Cuba after Spanish, has roots in the Haitians who came to Cuba. Despite discrimination suffered by the Haitians, the Creole language, voodoo and other musical and dance traditions remain in Cuba’s cultural milieu.
  • Mulata is mejor – mulatto is better
  • Mulatto – a person of mixed white and black ancestry, especially a person with one white and one black parent.
  • Blanquear – to whitewashCriollo – native of a particular Latin American country, as opposed to a foreigner
  • Guajiro – (White) peasant
  • Marero – gang member
  • cornichons – pickles
  • puerco asado – roast pork
  • Congrí – Cuban Black Beans & Rice
  • Sobriety = a daily exercise, especially at night
  • Arroz con leche – Cuban rice pudding
  • Puros Cubanos – Cuban cigars
  • Güero – “blond” in Mexican Spanish, but can also refer to a light-skinned person.
  • Chele – fair; blond/blonde.
  • Guineo – banana
  • Plátano – banana
  • Huipil – a sleeveless tunic, traditionally worn by women in many regions of Mexico and Guatemala.
  • Ajiaco – traditional Cuban stew. It’s a hearty chicken soup made with corn on the cob and small yellow Andean potatoes (called papas criollas—they dissolve and thicken the soup as it cooks.)
  • Emilia Casanova de Villaverde – (1832–1897) was a Cuban political activist, most notable for her involvement in the Cuban independence movement. Received letters of support from Victor Hugo. She founded La Liga de las Hijas de Cuba, one of the first all-women’s organizations dedicated to the Antillean emancipation struggle.
  • Hielera -cooler
  • Cafecito – little coffee
  • Guajiro – A Cuban agricultural worker.
  • mamey – a tropical American tree having large edible red fruit with red rind and sweet yellow flesh.
  • repartero – disheveled person.
  • Hoatzin – known as the reptile bird, skunk bird, stinkbird, or Canje pheasant, is a species of tropical bird found in swamps, riparian forests, and mangroves of the Amazon and the Orinoco basins in South America. It is notable for having chicks that have claws on two of their wing digits.
  • Fuerza – force
  • ateje – clammy cherry
  • guanajo – turkey
  • comité – committee
  • prueba – proof; piece of evidence; test
  • malanga – tuber resembling a sweet potato
  • níspero – loquat tree is a medium-sized tree found in mild temperate climates.
  • Cucurucho – a local delicacy of the city of Baracoa in eastern Cuba. Wrapped in a cone-shaped palm leaf
  • maní – peanut
  • Mam is a Mayan language spoken by about half a million Mam people in the Guatemalan departments of Quetzaltenango, Huehuetenango, San Marcos, and Retalhuleu, and the Mexican state of Chiapas.
  • cortaditos – an espresso topped with an approximately equal amount of steamed milk.
  • ambergris – a waxy substance that originates as a secretion in the intestines of the sperm whale, found floating in tropical seas and used in perfume manufacture.
  • pollero, pollera – poulterer, poultry dealer
  • Kʼicheʼ, also known as Qatzijobʼal lit. ’our language’ among its speakers), or Quiché, is a Mayan language of Guatemala, spoken by the Kʼicheʼ people of the central highlands. With over a million speakers (some 7% of Guatemala’s population), Kʼicheʼ is the second most widely-spoken language in the country, after Spanish. It is also the most widely-spoken indigenous American language in Mesoamerica.
  • jinetero – a corruption of word jinete, which in Spanish means jockey. However, when the jinete jinetea he rides horses, but when the jinetero jinetea he hustles. In Cuba jinetear, the verb, means specifically “to conduct illicit business with foreigners, sometimes including prostitution.” While a small number of jineteras charge by the hour, the vast majority engage in an ambiguous exchange of gifts and favous that is not limited by time. Mostly, jineteras are serial monogamists (if we discount their permanent Cuban husbands) enjoying the company of foreign men who may or may not be aware of what they let themselves into.
  • Yuma – a member of a North American people
Delores put on a wiggle dress before she murdered her husband.
wiggle dress – a skirt or dress that comes just below the knee with a hem that is narrower than the waist, meaning you can’t help but wiggle when you walk. The wiggle dress came about in the 1950s but stuck around until the early 60s Pictures: Chaloner Woods/Getty / Chaloner Woods/Getty Images

“Who are we, weakness? No, we are force.” – Victor Hugo The phrase “We are force” is the book’s theme, referring to power within as well as power over.

In Miami Cuban is synonymous of white. They scoff when you call then Latino.

“This is how most relationships must end, I think. Slow and without drama or pandemonium, without reason: just two people who become accessories to the bland survival of everyday.” – Jeanette’s cousin

What happens to the children when the parents are deported? How do you find someone who is detained?

Jeanette’s mother always shows up with food that she had made the night before, claiming she has made too much, that she doesn’t want a refrigerator full of leftovers.

Even the best mothers in the world can not always save their daughters. – Gloria

My cousin knew life was complicated and none of us were fully who we pretended to be.

It isn’t cheating if the marriage is on life support. The only reason we haven’t pulled the plug is inconvenience: scarce housing.

Immigration is a civil matter. There is no guaranteed phone call, no public attorney. You can get a lawyer if you can pay for one. Mothers taken away can not contact their children and the guards do not listen when the mother says she left a child behind. They export people in the middle of the night with out giving them any information or answers. They are jails baby proofed for babies who should not be in jail. The families are put in centers as far as possible from anyone they know.

Credible fear – a concept in United States asylum law whereby a person who demonstrates a credible fear of returning to their home country cannot be subject to deportation from the United States until the person’s asylum case is processed.

Kids are supposed to be detained more than twenty-one days but the Obama administration ruled that kids jailed with parents are different and can be held with out a limit.

That place you call home had never considered you hers, had always help you at arm’s length like an ugly reflection?

Jeanette’s sponsor once told her that the only love that she knows is the kind of love that breaks a person over and over again.

Bird Suicide – https://www.orissapost.com/there-is-a-place-in-india-where-birds-commit-suicide

Birds fly even if it kills them.

Bathwater – that feeling of calming and suspension.

Excitement rippled through her, fear. Two emotions too similar to tell apart most days.

Jeanette did first cocaine at 15 with a strange adult man. “Her body felt electrified and the dizziness evaporated. She was seized by an excitement, the feeling of something incredible about to happen. She felt at the precipice of a whole new life and couldn’t believe she’d ever doubted herself.

Three choices for Anna and Gloria when dropped off in Mexico:
Recross the border right away
Return to the place the fled because if hunger and the threat if death
Stay in Mexico and try to survive

Mambises – Liberation Army

Politics is personal and it’s tied to everything. I’m very aware that my perspective as a U.S.-born daughter of immigrants going to Cuba is not ever going to be the same as a Cuban born and raised and living in Cuba. And similarly my perspective on Mexico. ~ Gabriela Garcia in an interview

Lectureship – people who read books to cigar workers as they rolled tobacco

migrant justice organizer – Gabriela Garcia’s job when she is not writing. She worked with women who were in family detention centers that were being built around 2014. Issues of family detention were happening before the Trump presidency or before it was a widespread national conversation.

Special Period (Spanish: Período especial), officially the Special Period in the Time of Peace (Período especial en tiempos de paz), ~ an extended period of economic crisis in Cuba that began in 1991 primarily due to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and, by extension, the Comecon. The economic depression of the Special Period was at its most severe in the early to mid-1990s, before slightly declining in severity towards the end of the decade once Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela emerged as Cuba’s primary trading partner and diplomatic ally, and especially after the year 2000 once Cuba–Russia relations improved under the presidency of Vladimir Putin.

Comecon, byname of Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA), also called (from 1991) Organization for International Economic Cooperation, organization established in January 1949 to facilitate and coordinate the economic development of the eastern European countries belonging to the Soviet bloc.

The strength required to survive as a Latinx woman, trying to forge a life for herself, translates to making a series of heartbreaking decisions, precisely because choices are so limited and personal agency so bounded by interpersonal and structural violence. While Garcia’s women have great inner stamina, they lack the collective strength of solidarity. [On Borders and Belonging: Gabriela Garcia’s “Of Women and Salt” written by Freya Marshall Payne, May 23, 2021, https://lareviewofbooks.org/%5D

Author Gabriela Garcia. (Andria Lo)

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